There are so many different health benefits to crochet. It can helps us get through everything from rare illnesses to the grief of losing a pet. In this interview, Alexandra Halsey shares her experience learning to crochet and explains more about how it has been a part of her personal healing process as she lives with chronic illness, using the craft to help her raise awareness.
Alex is a stay at home mom in her early 30s who has been living with multiple chronic illness issues (lupus, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia and others) for more than a decade.
Her Facebook page, With Alex, serves as a place of connection and inspiration for community members with invisible and ongoing health issues.
When and how did you learn to crochet?
At the beginning of January 2013 my fiancé, Sean, asked me if I would want to try to crochet since I had really wanted to knit but discovered that it was too painful for me. I had tried to crochet a few times in my life but without help I hadn’t gotten anywhere. Sean sat down on the couch next to me with a crochet hook in one hand and yarn in the other, and I paid attention.
Sean does not crochet, but he remembered how to do it from when he was a child and would sit on the arm of his mom’s chair and watch her crochet. From memory he taught me how to chain, single crochet, and how to make rows. From the moment I put the crochet hook in my hand and made my first chain and single crochet, I knew that crochet was for me!
I used what Sean taught me and I crocheted 2 rectangles and turned them into 2 pixie hats. After that I followed YouTube tutorials to learn more and I quickly grew obsessed with learning all I could about crochet and trying different techniques, stitches, and projects.
So you started off crocheting the basics and making hats. How did you get into amigurumi?
In February of 2014, I decided that I wanted to make my sweet friend a really special surprise.
She crochets, too, so I knew I had to think of something really impressive to make for her. I had heard about amigurumi, and I loved how cute the little stuffed animals are so I decided that I would try my hand at it.
I had gotten a handmade teddy bear while I stayed in the hospital at Christmastime once and I still cherish that bear so I decided I would make my friend a teddy bear. I had so much fun making that little bear. When I put her little face on I felt like she became real somehow. She turned out so cute and I absolutely fell in love with making amigurumi and have been making them ever since. I have made dolls, bears, giraffes, a lion, a My Little Pony and more.
What differences have you experienced between amigurumi and other crochet?
For me it’s mostly about the stitches. With amigurumi I like to use single crochets but with my other projects I use all kinds of crochet stitches so I love to have one of each going at all times. Some days I love to make little single crochets with a small hook, but other days I want to make different stitches with a larger hook, so what I work on depends on what kind of day I’m having.
Also, with amigurumi there is a lot of pattern following but with other projects the pattern can have a lot of repetitions that are easy to remember or the pattern might just be working double crochet for a while (like with a blanket).
The part I like least about making amigurumi is sewing the parts together. I would much rather be crocheting but once you get all the parts together it is worth it! The end result can be amazing.
What is your favorite item that you've crocheted?
My favorite non-amigurumi project would have to be the shawl I made for my mom’s birthday. I followed a free Red Heart pattern called The Lorelei Shawl and I used the Red Heart Boutique Unforgettable yarn in parrot. I love the color changes in the Unforgettable yarn and the pattern was a lot of fun to follow. It consisted of making a lot of granny flowers but they are joined as you go and I weaved in the ends as I went so when I was done all I had to do was add the tassels and voila! The shawl is so comfy and lightweight that I can’t wait to make one for myself!
My favorite amigurumi that I have made so far was a Lalylala doll for my twin sister. I crocheted her Loni the Lion and he came out absolutely adorable. I love him and she loves him! My second favorite amigurumi (a very close second) would be the Rainbow Dash that I crocheted for my younger sister’s birthday. I followed a free pattern by Knit One Awe Some and made a few adjustments. I love how she turned out. She was a lot of fun to make and my sister flipped out (in a good way) when she opened her present.
Those are lovely projects. I also really love your voodoo dolls ... can you tell us a little bit more about them?
My best friend since 2nd grade, Naomi, had hinted that she wanted a voodoo doll for her birthday by sending me a link to a free voodoo doll pattern from Que Pasa Cabarete. It was super cute and an easy little project so I made her a customized one with her pick of hat, eyes, and extras. Her little voodoo doll came out really cute and she named her “Emo Omi”.
I had been trying to come up with an idea to make my other best friend since high school, Julia, a special present. After I made Naomi’s, I came up with an idea. Julia and I both suffer from fibromyalgia and for years I have felt like I am a voodoo doll that someone is being really mean to and poking, pinning, stabbing, and hurting the doll to hurt me. So it was really easy to take that to the next step and create the Fibro Voodoo Doll for Julia, me and all other sufferers of chronic pain. It was a fun pattern to design and I have released it as a free pattern on Ravelry for anyone that wants to make themselves or a loved one a Fibro Voodoo Doll. Since then I have started making customized voodoo dolls too. I made one for my son Isaac that he designed and named “Izzy” His comes with a matching hat too. I love it! I have so many more ideas for voodoo dolls.
What a great way to use crochet to recognize and externalize some of the pain that you’re in! What would you like to share about your own health journey and the role that crochet has played in that?
I have been diagnosed with migraines, Crohn’s Disease, Fibromyalgia, Lupus, Interstitial Cystitis among other problems.
I am also a tuberculosis survivor, so I deal with a lot of chronic pain, anxiety, stress, insomnia, etc. Crochet helps me to cope by giving me something to do. It distracts me from my pain, and when I’m done with a project I get a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. It is also makes me so happy to be able to make presents for my friends and family. Even if I can’t get out of bed that day I can crochet and make somebody happy with what I make.
You mentioned that you first tried knitting. Can you explain why that didn't work for you and why crochet does?
I started knitting in late November of 2012 and at first I really loved it. I got the hang of it pretty quickly and I thought I would do it for the rest of my life. I loved the motions, the way the stitches looked as they were coming together, and I love making things so I thought that knitting was going to be perfect for me. Boy was I wrong!
The same motions that I loved making started hurting my fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, back and my neck within minutes of me starting. The constant need to slide the knitting up while working made blisters and cuts on my fingers. I found I was only able to actually knit for a couple of minutes at a time without hurting myself. I was able to finish a couple of hats for my nephew before I gave up completely. The first was a red elf/ Christmas hat that fit perfectly and the second was a white earflap hat with pompoms that didn’t fit him at all.
After I started crocheting I was so amazed by how long I could crochet and not hurt myself by doing it. I kept waiting for it to hurt me like knitting did but the motions for crochet are so much smaller and easier to do. With knitting I was using both hands and my arms but with crochet I barely move my arms at all and I use my wrists and fingers with very small movements. Also with crochet there is no need to constantly rearrange and push your work forward to work on it. Crochet is so much easier on my body and I quickly grew obsessed! I even thought that it would take me at least a year before I would be able to follow patterns and make some of the really cute animal hats but by my third project I was following patterns and had made a really cute lamb hat with a matching diaper cover by using puff stitches. I even came up with the ears by myself.
That quickly led to your terrific online presence in crochet. How do you use that presence and your crafting skills to help others?
I started a Facebook page (originally called Crocheting Thru Chronic Diseases with Alex, now just called With Alex) in October 2013. I try to make daily entries about my crochet and how I am that day. I use it to reach people who are like me: sick with not much to do, and too sick to do much. I want these people to know that there are things that they can do even from bed, like crochet or other crafts.
Crochet has given me a wonderful purpose in life and I want to share it with others and tell them to never give up until they find what makes them happy and helps them to feel worthwhile. Never giving up is a very important message that I feel some people need to hear, especially in the chronically/ mentally ill community.
I have some tutorials and free patterns that I share and I love helping people learn to crochet by sending them tips, tricks, links, and advice. I have expanded my Facebook page into a website and blog, YouTube channel and other social media networks like Instagram and Ravelry.
I also use my page to connect with other crocheters, amateur and expert alike. I love seeing other people’s WIPs and finished projects, tips, and advice. I share WIPs and FOs that people send in to me on my Facebook page for Fan Share Fridays. Seeing finished projects can be a huge motivator to get my own projects done.
It sounds like you’ve had a great experience with the online crochet/health community so far?
My experience with the online crochet/health community has been very positive. I’m very lucky to have some wonderful followers. If I’m having a bad day or if I can’t figure something out in my crochet, there is always someone to talk to who offers positive feedback and advice or a listening ear. I also follow some wonderful people and crochet groups that are wonderful resources and great people to look up to. They are huge inspirations to me.
Alexandra has also participated in community projects such as the Mandalas for Marinke project to raise awareness about depression / suicide through crochet.
Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 10 of Happily Hooked digital magazine (January 2015). Crochet Expert Kathryn Vercillo writes a monthly column there interviewing people about their experience healing through crochet.